Apple and Google among firms calling for changes to snooper’s charter

Six of the biggest American technology firms have combined forces to call for major changes to the Investigatory Powers bill, commonly known as the snooper’s charter.

The firms warn that “important amendments are required” to create a bill that will not set dangerous precedents “which may be copied elsewhere and have wider ramifications for all parties, both in the UK and overseas”.

Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo, who had teamed up for an earlier group submission, were joined for the first time by Apple, which had previously insisted on going it alone in its efforts to lobby the British parliament.

In evidence submitted to the public bill committee, which will examine the legislation before it comes to a vote in the House of Commons, the six firms criticise the IP bill for its attempts to establish extraterritorial jurisdiction. This would allow Britain to force companies to comply even if they aren’t based in the UK.

They point out that the government had previously been advised that international agreements were the best way to achieve that goal. The firms also say that “the discussions between the US and the UK in this regard provide a much better path toward a workable arrangement than do naked assertions of sovereign power beyond borders”.

But for many British users of the firms’ technology, the more pressing issue is the fact that the bill will give the government the power to force a company to strip encryption from its users’ communications. For some services, such as Apple’s iMessage or Facebook’s WhatsApp, that would require a complete rewrite of the service.

The companies argue that “the bill should be amended so that there is an explicit threshold: where a service is encrypted end-to-end, the bill should recognise it will not be reasonably practicable to provide decrypted content, rather than leave this to be established on a case-by-case basis.”

While the bill contains a number of measures that could be seen as requiring companies to weaken their users’ security, it contains little language to the contrary. In their submission, Apple et al “urge the government to make clear that actions taken under authorisation do not introduce new risks or vulnerabilities for users or businesses, and that the goal of eliminating vulnerabilities is one shared by the UK government”.

Although all of the firms had previously attacked the snoopers charter in December (with Apple filing a separate brief from its competitors), when the final version of the bill was introduced in early March, there was very little evidence that the government had listened to their concerns. Calling the changes “cosmetic tweaks”, Eric King, the director of the Don’t Spy on Us coalition, warned that the bill was being rushed through without enough time for proper scrutiny.

The Web Foundation, which was founded by the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, called the final bill “a slap in the face for British democracy”.

comments powered by Disqus